Things change quickly in the Sprint Cup Series. Past success doesn’t necessarily assure a team and its owner success in the future, but when you’re Jimmie Johnson and your owner just happens to be Rick Hendrick, history does carry some weight.
Rick Hendrick and his Hendrick Motorsports four-team operation entered this season just one race shy of win #200. His starstudded lineup includes five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, with each driver capable of giving Hendrick the win that would further cement his position as one of the top owners of all time.
It wasn’t until the 11th race of the season at Darlington that Johnson made the historic trip to victory lane for Hendrick and finally claim the milestone win. Johnson took over the role of being the flagship team for the Hendrick Empire from Gordon when he started winning his first of five consecutive championships in 2006.
During his five-year reign on top of the sport, he, along with crew chief Chad Knaus, set themselves apart as being the model that everyone wanted to duplicate for their success in the sport. Remember though, success doesn’t guarantee future success in this sport and after losing last year’s title to Tony Stewart, suddenly Johnson and Knaus were no longer considered unbeatable.
This season started with the duo still searching for the dominant performances that had characterized their five title runs and it seemed that there was some frustration at times when the finishes didn’t reflect just how well they had run. All of that changed when the series rolled into Darlington for the Mother’s Day weekend running of the Bojangles Southern 500 that took place on a Saturday night.
Darlington just may be the toughest racetrack on the entire schedule, but that night Johnson ran it like he owned it as he won his first race of the season. The win, as it has turned out, was just a hint of what was to come for Johnson and his team as on Saturday night he owned the Sprint All-Star race held at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson’s win on Saturday was his third-ever win in the non-points race and it put him in some pretty good company as he joins the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and teammate Gordon as the only drivers to ever win three. More importantly, it was the manner in which Johnson and his team went about securing the win that may signal that Jimmie has once again returned to being the dominate force that he was for that five-year span when he was collecting titles.
Johnson’s win came after a stellar opening segment win that saw him take the lead early and never look back as he secured the number one position for entering pit road during the mandatory pit stop before the beginning of the 10-lap sprint to the finish. It also can’t be overlooked that they had the number one pit stall, thanks to the team’s pit crew winning the pit crew challenge earlier in the week. Once that position was secure, the strategy that Knaus laid out for the rest of the race played out beautifully. He kept his driver safe and made sure that the car has good tires for the final laps.
When Johnson is up on the wheel, Knaus has full control of the race and the pit crew is doing their job, the team transcends to another level where it seems that it doesn’t really race the rest of the field, instead they run their own race with the confidence that a checkered flag awaits their efforts. Whether you are a Johnson fan or not, you have to respect the way they prepare, compete and what once again seems like the way they collect wins.
Event: Coca-Cola 600
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway
(1.5-mile quad-oval, 24 degrees of
banking in the turns)
Date: May 27, 6 p.m.
Defending Champ: Kevin Harvick